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A Case of Witchcraft: The Trial Of Urbain Grandier

By Robert Rapley, published by Manchester University Press at £25. HBk. 277pp, hardback. ISBN: 0-7190-5528-8. (Reviewed by Brian Hoggard)

This is an excellent book which dispels many of the myths about this famous trial. Here in England we're familiar with the famous story version of The Devils of Loudun published in 1953 by Aldous Huxley and then Ken Russel's cinematic and very graphic 1971 film of the book. This new book by Rapley, an independent scholar from Ottawa, is great for a number of reasons.

Urbain Grandier's story has everything. He was a priest who was accused by several nuns of bringing demons into their convent which tormented them with desire and made them contort, twist and utter blasphemies. Hundreds of people from all over France came to witness the exorcisms and bizarre contortions of the nuns, most of whom were from wealthy (and by this time very embarassed) families. During one exorcism a written pact, signed by Grandier, was vomited by one of the nuns - apparently proving his guilt. After horrendous torture it ended with Grandier being burned alive in the central square of Loudun. These are the key facts that have been told time and time again but the background of the story has not often been told.

Most witchcraft cases I've ever read have some explanation, or it is clear that the accused was innocent of the charges. I have never before seen a case as appalling as this one though with such extreme abuse of the law however. Grandier was guilty of having an affair with a woman which resulted in pregnancy. The family whose daughter had been ‘ruined' by this priest sought revenge and plotted mercilessly to have the priest destroyed. What ensued was a variety of attempts to smear the priest name and destroy his reputation. This involved powerful allies of both sides including bishops and courtiers to the King. The tensions ran very high in this battle! Add to this a visit of the plague to Loudun, Cardinal Richelieu's involvement in destroying the city walls (an old enemy of Grandier's) and an apparently mentally unstable head nun and the elements for the story start to come together. Suffice to say that Grandier was guilty of having ‘ruined' a woman, but not of any of the things which led to him being burned alive after horrific torture.

Rapley has investigated every aspect of the case in great depth and re-told the story in a very easy to read and evocative way. Despite this the book is fully referenced and stands up to academic scrutiny - I wish more history books were written like this! In style this book reminds me of James Sharpe's The Bewitching of Anne Gunter (reviewed in WD issue 27), which I think is an excellent book too. If you want to read an excellent account of one of the most famous witchcraft trials and find out lots of new information about it on the way this book is well worth it - although some of you may wish to wait until a cheaper paperback comes out… Full marks for this one.